Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has told the NBA in a letter that he will not pay the $2.5 million fine the league levied against him and that he is considering legal action, according to a report from Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver handed down the $2.5 million fine, the maximum allowed under the NBA constitution, and announced that the league would try to force a sale of the team last month after TMZ and Deadspin posted audio in which the Clippers owner made racist comments about African-Americans, including NBA legend Magic Johnson.
In a move that was hardly unexpected, Sterling’s attorney has indicated that he will pursue legal action if the NBA continues its efforts to force a sale, McCann reported:
SI.com has learned that Clippers owner Donald Sterling has hired prominent antitrust litigator Maxwell Blecher, who has written a letter to NBA executive vice president and general counsel Rick Buchanan threatening to sue the NBA. The letter, sources tell SI.com, claims that Sterling has done nothing wrong and that “no punishment is warranted” for Sterling. Blecher also tells Buchanan that Sterling will not pay the $2.5 million fine, which is already past due. Blecher ends the letter by saying this controversy “will be adjudicated.” [...]
“We reject your demand for payment,” the letter tells Buchanan, who on May 14 informed Sterling by letter that he must pay the $2.5 million fine.
According to McCann, the letter to the NBA outlines two possible defenses for Sterling: first, that he did not violate any provision of the NBA constitution and second that the league violated his due process rights.
Legal analysts seem skeptical that Sterling will have a legitimate case against the league. McCann writes that Sterling’s suit would “face a daunting task, as Sterling contractually agreed to follow the NBA’s system of justice,” and even before Silver announced the sanctions against Sterling, ESPN’s Lester Munson wrote that the owner would stand virtually no chance of winning a legal battle with the league and would instead likely suffer “a humiliating defeat early in the process.”
Sterling seemed to recognize that in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper this week, in which he apologized for his “terrible, terrible mistake” before making even more offensive comments about Johnson. In that interview, Sterling questioned whether going to war with the NBA through litigation would be worth the time, money, and effort it would take.
“People want me to hire a wall of lawyers and them to have to hire a wall of lawyers and go to war. I don’t think that’s the answer,” Sterling told Cooper. “I think the answer is, the league is a good league, all honest people. And I think that whatever they decide that has to be done, I think I should work with them and do it.”
At the same time, Sterling told Cooper that he wasn’t sure if the NBA was actually going to force him to sell his team, and his estranged wife, Shelly Sterling, pledged in an interview on the Today Show that the family would fight the league if it tried to strip the family of the team Sterling has owned since 1981.
It’s still not certain that Sterling will pursue litigation — the letter only threatens a lawsuit — but he is at least setting the stage to do so. And if he does, the mess that Silver tried to handle swiftly and strongly will instead lead to a long, protracted battle that won’t be fun for anyone involved.